Interviewed July 2010
Constâncio Pinto is the ambassador of East Timor to the United States. Still a child when the Indonesian military occupied the former Portuguese colony of East Timor in 1975, he fled to the mountains with his parents. The family remained in hiding for several years before returning to Dili, the capital, where Pinto attended high school and college. While still in school, Pinto became a leader of the underground movement for self-determination. In 1991 he was arrested, detained, and tortured for several days. The military authorities released him on the condition that he serve as an informant, but instead he escaped from Timor and eventually from Indonesia. After his escape, Ambassador Pinto studied at Brown University and served as the Timorese self-determination movement’s representative in the United States. He developed close working relationships with members of Congress and other U.S. human rights advocates and, when Timor achieved independence in 2002, he became a diplomat. He was appointed ambassador in 2009.
East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, is a country of 1.1 million people in the East Indies. It was colonized by Portugal in the 16th century and was an exporter of sandalwood and coffee. As the Portuguese economy struggled in the first part of the 20th century, the nation attempted to extract more resources from its colonies, including East Timor. This increase in Portuguese business control and demands was met with resistance by inhabitants. After Portugal announced in 1975 that the colony would soon become independent and began the process of decolonization, fighting broke out between rival Timorese factions. The Indonesian Army invaded and occupied East Timor in December of that year, and a few months later the country was formally annexed by Indonesia.
The Indonesian occupation was marked by repression and brutality. Under the dictatorship of Suharto, who ruled Indonesia from 1967 to 1998, freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly were denied throughout Indonesia, including in occupied East Timor. Timorese who were suspected of harboring separatist sympathies—particularly those suspected of association with the small but resilient guerrilla resistance movement—were routinely arrested, imprisoned and tortured. Extrajudicial killings were common. The 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, in which Indonesian troops killed an estimated 200 men, women, and children who had participated in a funeral procession for a pro-independence activist, focused world attention on the continuing denial of democracy and self-determination in East Timor. The massacre and associated events also highlighted the importance of the Catholic Church, both as a focus of Timorese identity and as the only institution that could sometimes afford a measure of protection from government-sponsored violence.
In 1998, shortly after the fall of the Indonesian dictator Suharto, the new President B.J. Habibie announced a “consultation” by which the people of East Timor would be permitted to choose either autonomy within Indonesia or outright independence. The consultation took place in the form of a U.N.-supervised referendum in August 1999 in which 79 percent of the voters chose independence. In the weeks after the announcement of the vote, the departing Indonesian army and its associated Timorese militias destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure and killed over a thousand people. That December, a United Nations peacekeeping force was established, and a U.N. mission administered the country until the restoration of independence in 2002. East Timor and Indonesia are now both multiparty parliamentary democracies.
Violence has continued since East Timor gained independence. Violent clashes in 2006 between rioters and police forces led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. Police and rioters clashed once again leading up to the 2007 elections. The election required three separate ballots due to irregularities and accusations of fraud. Additionally, assassination attempts on both candidates and elected leaders occurred. In 2012, East Timor held both presidential and primary elections considered successful, free, and fair. At the end of that year, the UN ended its peacekeeping mission in the nation.
East Timor’s economy remains heavily dependent on commodities such as oil, coffee, and sandalwood.
Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom in the World Report lists East Timor as “partly free.” The country earned a freedom rating of 3 with 7 being the least free. East Timor also received civil liberties rating and political rights ratings of 3. The country still struggles with corruption and nepotism as well as a weak rule of law. Additionally, there is a lack of transparency surrounding the government and law regulates demonstrations that “question constitutional order” or could damage the reputation of the nation’s leaders. Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2014 report assigned a “Partly Free” rating to East Timor.